Sri Lanka: Tracing the Origins of Ceylon Tea

The tea plantations in the highlands of Sri Lanka supply the leaves that fill tea cups across the globe.

Nuwara Eliya District, Sri Lanka – Tea is the most consumed beverage in the world after water. But the drink, which is the mainstay of many cultures, is subject to the same volatile market forces as oil or gold.

Sri Lanka is the world’s fourth largest exporter of tea, behind China, India and Kenya, and relies on the industry to employ formally and informally one million of it’s 20.6 million people, according to the Sri Lanka Tea Board. Tea accounts for 17 percent of Sri Lanka’s exports.

The largest importer of Ceylon tea is Russia and other members for the Commonwealth of Independent States. Iran, Iraq and Syria were some of the biggest consumers of Sri Lankan tea, and conflict in these areas has put a strain on the industry, according to the Tea Board report. China’s recent economic troubles, as well as low oil prices in another large importer, the United Arab Emirates, mean that tea exports could face another hit in 2016.

Market analysts observe, however, that there is significant growth in tea consumption in large markets such as the United States, where health-conscious consumers are looking for better alternatives to sugary fizzy drinks and young, wealthy millennials are showing interest in speciality teas. There is also growing demand for “ready-to-drink” tea products.

Tracing the origins of Ceylon tea 01Sri Lanka’s picturesque tea plantations lie in the highlands, mostly in the province of Nuwara Eliya. At 1260m above sea level, the high altitudes, long rainy seasons and humidity make the perfect conditions for growing tea. [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Tracing the origins of Ceylon tea 02Women plantation workers collect the top tiers of the leaves and the most delicate shoots, which are used to make white and green Ceylon tea. The availability of labour to hand-pick this delicate tea adds to the high-end value of the market. Women are paid about $5 for 18 kg of tea. [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]


Tracing the origins of Ceylon tea 03 Sri Lanka had the fastest-growing economy in South Asia in 2014, according to a World Bank report. Currently 30 percent of its workforce is in primary agriculture. Sri Lanka passed most of its Millennium Development Goals and economic growth has benefited the poorest in society. Unemployment is low, at 4.4 percent. Analysts credit the past five years of growth as a ‘peace dividend’ after almost 30 years of civil war. [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Tracing the origins of Ceylon tea 04 Most tea plantation workers are fourth generation immigrant Indian Tamils. Colonial British plantation owners brought workers as a cheap workforce from south India in the 1850s to work on the tea estates. [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Tracing the origins of Ceylon tea 05 While estates differ, labour unions have fought to make living conditions better. Workers can grow their own vegetables and creche and primary school facilities are available for workers’ children. In 2009, the unions joined together to demand higher wages and the average salary doubled. [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Tracing the origins of Ceylon tea 06 Men earn the same daily rate of $5 but collect only 14 kg of tea. They are expected to contribute to the maintenance of the estate. [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Tracing the origins of Ceylon tea 07 Malnutrition among children on the estates is at 43 percent, significantly higher than the national average of 10 percent. Low birth weight and malnutrition in both mother and baby lead to cognitive disability and physically slow growth. [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Tracing the origins of Ceylon tea 08 Women have to collect 18kg of delicate tea leaves to receive their daily pay of $5. Anything under 18kg brings their wage down to $3. Each additional kilogramme over the 18kg weight is priced at 20 rupees (about 14 cents). [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Tracing the origins of Ceylon tea 09 Tea from the plantations arrives in the factories in the late evening, where it is set out under alternating hot and cold fans to dry for 10 hours. The delicate white and green teas are removed while the rest of the black tea is crushed, sieved and left to ferment for three hours. [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Tracing the origins of Ceylon tea 10 The fermented black tea is then separated through various sieves into the crushed black leaves used for tea. The tea stalks are collected, packed together for fertiliser and sent back to the tea plantations. [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Tracing the origins of Ceylon tea 11 One of the first machines used in this factory was imported from Ireland in 1950, and runs on firewood. It dries the leaves for 20 minutes under 100C. [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Tracing the origins of Ceylon tea 12 Some of the tea leaves are further purified under this colour separator machine. A much newer addition, this machine uses light sensors to detect and separate pure black tea from the crushed brown stalks. The final product is the purest of the black Ceylon teas. [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Tracing the origins of Ceylon tea 13 The tea is graded and priced on the level it needs to be crushed. Small pieces with a strong taste are cheaper and drunk by the locals. The unfermented silver tip and gold tip white tea is the most expensive. [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Tracing the origins of Ceylon tea 14 Sri Lanka is the world’s fourth largest tea exporter. Its main buyers are Russia, Syria, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirate. Conflict in the Middle East has caused a drop in demand for the tea, placing a lot of stress on the industry. [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Tracing the origins of Ceylon tea 15 Women tea plantation workers head out in the early hours of the morning and must collect 18kg of tea leaves by 5pm. Leeches can be a pest to the pickers, who can also be attacked by occasional swarms of bees. [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

By: Lisa GoldenSorin Furcoi 

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